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How Can I Tell if a Purchase is Categorized as Travel?

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TPG reader Noah sent me a message on Facebook to ask about credit card bonus categories:

“I went on a scuba trip to Palau last month. I thought it would count as a travel purchase (and earn a bonus on my Citi card), but the merchant was categorized differently so I didn’t get the points I expected. Is there any way to tell how a merchant is classified in advance?”

One of the best ways to rack up points and miles is by maximizing credit card bonus categories. By using the right card for a given purchase, you can earn additional rewards for each dollar spent. Travel is one of the most popular bonus categories, and a number of cards offer extra points not only for typical expenses like airfare and hotels, but also for tolls, local transit and more.

Credit card issuers have their own ways of defining what qualifies as travel, Citi offers a fairly broad definition for purchases on rewards cards like the Citi Prestige and Citi ThankYou Premier, both of which offer 3 points per dollar on travel (air travel and hotels specifically for Prestige) and 2 points per dollar on dining and entertainment. See the complete list for more details, but note that a scuba diving outfit might fit into several of the bonus categories listed, such as tourist attractions and boat rentals.

Card issuers use merchant category codes to determine whether a purchase earns a bonus. The tricky part is that businesses aren’t always coded sensibly, especially smaller enterprises or those that offer more than one kind of service (like a highway restaurant/gas station). Even your average Target might be categorized as a department store, wholesale store or supermarket, or in some cases all three depending on which register you use to check out.

Gas station, restaurant or both?

Visa offers an online search tool called the Supplier Locator that can tell you how various businesses are coded. While businesses might code differently from one card network to another, you can use this tool to get a sense of what to expect.

If you’re making a large purchase and want to verify that you’ll earn bonus points, you have a few options. One is to make a small (or refundable) test purchase and see how it shows up on your credit card statement. If you earn a bonus, then future purchases will probably qualify as well. Another method is to simply ask the merchant, though most employees (and even many business owners) won’t know what you’re talking about, so it’s only worth digging into when a substantial bonus is at stake.

In my experience, card reps are pretty reluctant to award bonus points if a purchase isn’t categorized correctly. However, they do have some lattitude, especially with lucrative or long-time customers. You might find a sympathetic ear if you call and explain your situation. As I often say, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

On an unrelated note, Palau is at the top of my scuba diving bucket list, and I’m betting Noah had an awesome time even if he doesn’t have quite as many points to show for it!

If you have any other questions, please tweet me @thepointsguy, message me on Facebook or send me an email at
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